Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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It hurts, doesn’t it, to be insulted or to be gossiped about by friends or relatives?

But it doesn’t hurt as much if we are insulted or gossiped about by a social outcast or by someone who is mentally ill.

Most of us, for example, aren’t insulted when a vagrant shouts at us.

Why? Because we dismiss that vagrant’s shouting as an expression of his challenges.

Realizing that insults are more about the person insulting us than they are about us gives perspective on the metzora.

The metzora, of course, is someone “who ..has a skin disorder.”[1]

That disorder developed because, among other things, the metzora “spoke evil about others.”[2]

Indeed, the very term “metzo-ra” is Midrashically read as a composite of two words “metzo-ra” i.e., “disseminating-bad” – he disseminated bad words and gossip.[3]

The metzora was punished as follows: “his garments should be torn, the hair of his head mustn’t be cut, he must cover his head down to his lips, he must call out unclean, unclean ... he must remain alone.”[4]

His punishment continued for months, for years or for a lifetime of shame - until, hopefully, teshuva cleared his disorder.

The metzora’s long-term marks of Cain were an anomalous sort of punishment.

Other sinners were punished with fines or corporeally – no one was imprisoned or subjected to long-term punishment.

Why, then, was the metzora punished long-term?

The answer to this question lies in realizing that the gossip for which the metzora was being punished, wasn’t just a sin.

That gossip was, also, a public hazard.

Gossip’s poisonous words - more than other sins’ poisonous acts - spread uncontrollably and destroyed families and communities in their wake.

Gossip caused: “separation between husband and wife and between friends.”[5]

People, therefore, needed to be warned about hazardous gossipmongers, to know to distance themselves from them and to, thereby, avoid becoming fodder for their gossip mills.

The metzora’s rent clothing and unshorn hair, then were warning signs to other people.

Because of that, these signs needed to be in place long-term - until the gossipmonger did teshuva and no longer threatened other people.

Another factor may also have been at play here.

And that factor emerges from understanding why people gossip.

Unlike theft and forbidden lustful acts, gossip affords people no financial or physical pleasure.

Why, then, do people gossip?

Sometimes because it "feels good to ‘prove’ that someone is inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others ….​"[6]

​Sometimes because “​a gossiper may be enjoying the fact that they’re privy to something others don’t know…. they believe that people should feel lucky to know them and receive their gossipy news.”

And, lastly, because “gossip…..allows people…to take pleasure in someone else’s misery. It affords … a vicarious sadism.”[7]

What emerge then is that people gossip because they are insecure, needy and sadistic.

This realization lies within the Gemara’s dictum that “whoever disqualifies others, also disqualifies himself.”[8]

If a person’s shortcomings motivate him to gossip, then a metzora’s torn clothing and unshorn hair are not punishments per se.

They are, rather, statements that his gossips indicates that he is a torn, broken, unshorn person.

Gossip still haunts us and still causes us much grief.

How do we rise above that grief?

Perhaps by reminding ourselves that people who speak badly about us - like the vagrant who yells at us – do so because of their inferiorities, insecurities or sadistic tendencies.

Perhaps by reminding ourselves that it’s not about us.

It’s about them.

[1] Vayikra 13:1

[2] Arachin 15b

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vayikra 13:45-46

[5] Arachin 16b

[6] Dr. Mark J. Griffith, “Addicted to Gossip,” Psychology Today, March 3, 2106

[7] Rumor Has It: Why People Gossip and How You Can Cope, ​Jennifer Reynolds, Psychology Today, March 4, 2012​

[8] Kiddushin 70a



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